Dark chocolate has grown in popularity over the past several years. At one time dark chocolate was a small fraction of the $100 billion chocolate industry. Dark chocolate sales have increased almost 400% since 2002.(1) Much of this growth is based on what some would claim as chocolate receiving a “superfood” status.
Superfoods provide more health benefits than simply the calories they contain to give us energy. Dark chocolate has been shown in recent years to provide a large number of health benefits from its high-polyphenol content, fiber and antioxidants. With the large number of chocolate options available, it can also be confusing to understand what products provide health benefits, and which are little more than extra sugar and fat. We’ll take a look at what dark chocolate really is, what it may do for your health and how to buy it.
What is Dark Chocolate?
Your shiny, crisp, decorative chocolate bar starts out as a cocoa (cacao) pod. The country your cocoa comes from depends on which brand you choose. Usually, the cocoa will come from South America. Cocoa beans are removed from the pods and fermented and dried before the manufacturing process begins. The nibs are ground and liquefied into chocolate liquor, which can be separated into cocoa solids and cocoa butter. From there, the type of chocolate that will be made depends on the amounts of cocoa solids, butter, sugar and milk that will be used. Baking chocolate (unsweetened) is made with pure chocolate liquor. A little fat and sugar is added to make dark chocolate. The higher the percentage on the label, the more pure the chocolate is. Milk chocolate has milk added to it, and contains far less, if any of the health-promoting properties of dark chocolate. Some “chocolates” use vegetable oils and aren't really chocolate at all(2). Non-organic cocoa contains some of the highest amounts of pesticides of any crop on the world, so it's best to always choose a high quality dark chocolate.
For those looking for something a little different from a chocolate bar, raw cacao nibs can be used to make a snack. Cacao nibs are partly ground cacao beans, which have a mild chocolate flavor, are crunchy like a nut and can be used to sprinkle on other foods for a healthy snack. A great-tasting indulgence is using unsweetened full-fat Greek yogurt (like Fage), and sprinkling cacao nibs and several drops of liquid Stevia or a packet of Stevia in the yogurt cup. Mix it up and you have a high-protein snack with a great source of antioxidants, fiber and minimal sugar.
Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
There are many health benefits associated with chocolate consumption, but don't be misled by advertising for milk chocolate products that advertise the health benefits of dark chocolate consumption. Many chocolate bars are loaded with excess sugar, may come from non-organic sources and may contain little of the real chocolate components associated with health benefits.
Dark chocolate contains high amounts of flavonoids which have been shown to combat inflammation. Inflammation has been linked to almost every degenerative disease we face. A 2008 study showed that consuming a serving (20 grams) of dark chocolate every three days led to much lower levels of C-Reactive Protein, a marker for inflammation.(3)
A pilot study led by Professor Atkin at Hull York Medical School showed promise for those with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Patients receiving daily servings of 45 grams of dark chocolate reported significantly less fatigue while consuming it and reported the return of fatigue symptoms when they stopped taking it. A second group in the study received 45 grams of milk chocolate and reported no change. Professor Atkin explained “Dark chocolate is high in polyphenols, which have been associated with health benefits such as a reduction in blood pressure. Also high polyphenols appear to improve levels of serotonin in the brain, which has been linked with chronic fatigue syndrome and that may be a mechanism.”(4)
More recently, a 2009 study in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that dark chocolate has the potential to protect DNA from damage. These benefits again come from the high amount of polyphenols.(5)
What about eating dark chocolate if your goal is to lose weight? Will that be counter-productive? Not according to a study from the University of Copenhagen. It showed that those who ate a serving of dark chocolate consumed 15% fewer calories later in the day compared to those who ate milk chocolate.(6) That doesn’t mean those who are striving to lose weight should eat a whole bar every day, but if cravings for chocolate come on strong, a small serving may be beneficial.
Choosing Your “Flavor”
You can find dark chocolate almost anywhere. Just because the label says “dark chocolate” doesn’t mean it is healthy, though. Many companies produce dark chocolate treats with added flavors, sugars and fillings. If you’re consuming dark chocolate for its health benefits, just enjoy the chocolate. It doesn’t need the extra caramel, sweetened fruit or other extras you may find. If you are a chocolate fan and have eaten milk chocolate for most of your life, dark chocolate may take some getting used to. Over time, you’ll likely appreciate dark chocolate far more than sugar-laden milk chocolate.
For shopping, start with at least 70% dark chocolate. The higher the percentage, the less sugar and the more cocoa it will contain. 85-90% dark chocolate often has just enough sweetness to satisfy without extra sugar in it. Look for organic brands. You’ll get a healthier chocolate, and many of the organic brand companies have practices that better support the environment as well as labor. Dark chocolate is like wine. One Merlot tastes different from another depending on who makes it and where the grapes come from. The same is the case for dark chocolate. Different companies may grow their cocoa differently and make their chocolate slightly different from one another. You may like all of them and mix them up, or you may find one appeals to you more than any.
- Daniels S. Dark chocolate may protect DNA from damage: Study. NutraIngredients online article December 4, 2009 http://www.nutraingredients.com/Research/Dark-chocolate-may-protect-DNA-from-damage-Study
- Thomason A. The Sweet Truth: Chocolate Can Be Healthy. LifeScience online article. February 13, 2009. http://www.livescience.com/health/090213-chocolate-science.html
- di Giuseppe R, Di Castelnuovo A, Centritto F, Zito F, De Curtis A, Costanzo S, Vohnout B, Sieri S, Krogh V, Donati MB, de Gaetano G, Iacoviello L. Regular consumption of dark chocolate is associated with low serum concentrations of C-Reactive protein in a healthy Italian population. J Nutr. 2008 Oct;138(10:1939-45
- HYMS Press Release. Chocolate ‘aids fatigue syndrome'. Hull York Medical School. November 2007
- Spadafranca A, Martinez Conesa C, Sirini S, Testolin G. Effect of dark chocolate on plasma epicatechin levels DNA resistance to oxidative stress and total antioxidant activity in healthy subjects. Br J Nutr. 2010 Apr;103(7):1008-14
- University of Copenhagen. Dark Chocolate is More Filling than Milk Chocolate and Lessons Cravings.ScienceDaily. 23 December2008
This post was co-authored by my handsome husband. Tom is the Director of Nutrition & Weight Management for Life Time Fitness and Life Time Weight Loss.